History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Usually, I like reading books quickly. I like immersing myself in the world, a quick dive to the bottom of the pool and then back up again for a deep breath and the return of the pull of gravity on my limbs. If I take a long time reading a book, it’s because it’s difficult to read somehow, wordy in a nineteenth-century way or full of page-long sentences like those written by the literary Wunderkinder of the early twenty-first century or populated with a cast of thousands that I need notecards to keep track of.

This novel I read slowly for none of these reasons. History of Wolves drew me into the depths, past the hovering walleye, to a murky, beautiful place full of muffled sounds and a stinging cold from which I was in no rush to return.

Every word of this novel reaches deep. Fridlund wastes nothing. Linda’s memories of belonging and joy are so closely tied to memories of betrayal and pain that she can’t look at either directly. As we read, she circles around and around, getting close to the story and then drawing back, touching back on memories that take on one meaning in the first telling and another in the next. Fridlund puts the reader directly into Linda’s mind, and while it’s not always a comfortable place to be, it’s painfully real. This novel demands a slow read to savor each morsel, to roll each word over the tongue like a pebble.

A friend and I were talking about the difference between a novel about a young adult and a YA novel, and while there are perhaps some generalizations to be made about purpose and literary merit, at the root the difference seems to be one of subtlety. Most YA novels I’ve read at one point or another explain the conflicts of the characters directly, telling the reader explicitly that the main character feels alienated because despite some specific difference—poverty or learning disability or supernatural ability—she’s trying to be accepted by her peer group while remaining an individual. Linda feels the loneliness of a teenager trying to determine her place in the world, trying to feel accepted without blending in, but Fridlund shows all of this indirectly and more clearly and honestly than if she’d just written it outright.

I love this novel. I love the flawed, horrible, beautiful people. I love following Linda through the lakes and the woods, the slush and the mud, and the smell of pine sap and wet dog. I love seeing her poor decisions and her good decisions and the blurred dividing line between the two.

I’ve been reading novels lately with an eye for how they might help me improve my own character, and I can see two lessons that this book offers me on this front.

First is the reminder to experience everything. Hear each bird, smell each pinecone, taste each tropical Skittle, and note our relationship to these things because the same thing can seem different depending on the circumstances.

The second is to question my assumptions. Are the conclusions I’m drawing about the way the world works or about how the people around me act based on a sound premise? Am I leaving something out or missing a piece of the story that would allow me to understand a situation better? Are my assumptions blinding me to situations or evidence that might challenge my understanding of the world and of myself?

I have no memory of how this novel ended up on my to-read list, but I am so glad it was there and that it was on the shelves at my local library when I was looking for something to read.

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